June 14, 2021

Ranking the NFL's 8 Worst-to-First Candidates in 2021

There's been a tremendous amount of change in the NFL offseason. Teams have traded stars and players have reallocated to better situations. Their hopes and dreams of winning a Super Bowl will soon be realized or they'll fall short.

Every year there's a few competitors that jump from worst to first thanks to the right set of moves. Changing a coaching staff or acquiring a few impactful players can completely flip the outlook of a downtrodden franchise. 

We're ranking the eight teams that finished in last place in their division based on the likelihood they end up in first in 2021. Some aren't likely at all, but others have a legitimate shot.

8. Detroit Lions

There's a real possibility the Lions are the only team on this list to actually get worse this offseason. Don't get us wrong: Detroit had a solid draft haul and their coaching staff has an interesting dynamic with upside. But they're focused on the future, not 2021. 

The offense must prove they can be more than below-average despite real limitations at quarterback and receiver. Losing Matthew Stafford and their top receivers for a cast of underwhelming veterans is a tough sell. How can they compete with the Packers and Bears?

They can't. There's virtually no pathway to finishing first without several miracles.

Aaron Rodgers must be traded, and Jordan Love would need to epically bust. And the Bears' offense would need to be in shambles despite two upgrades at quarterback.

Sorry Detroit, your time isn't 2021 to jump to first. 

7. Cincinnati Bengals

There's a lot to like about the Bengals offense. Getting Joe Burrow back is in itself a big deal. He's a budding star who was so much fun to watch despite a limited offensive line in front of him.

His weaponry is as strong as can be, and his line has been bolstered a bit. This offense will be seriously fun to watch. 

But the defense seemed to get worse after replacing William Jackson III and Carl Lawson with lesser talents. The division is stacked with three quality teams while the Bengals still have talent and coaching question marks.

They're barely ahead of Detroit in this list but ultimately there's not much of a difference in their odds.

6. Atlanta Falcons

Like Detroit, the Falcons had a rough offseason if the goal was to win in 2021. They added a slew of quality draft picks but not all will help right away. Relying on three rookie defensive backs to fix an extremely flawed unit is inherently fatal.

The offensive will be solid at least. Mike Davis should have a sneaky-good season thanks to a healthier offensive line and better scheme. The receiving talent even without Julio Jones is impressive.

There's some room for the Falcons to rise but their peers have better upside. The Panthers have a strong roster but questionable quarterback situation. If Sam Darnold is the right guy, they can challenge the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers.

Atlanta has a tough path to winning the division. It would take a few quarterback injuries and then a surprising jump from this defense. But hey, never say never. 

5. New York Jets

We're still not hitting a great candidate to go from worst to first, but finally, a team has a chance. The Jets completely overhauled their staff and roster this offseason, loading up on potential playmakers.

The offensive will run smoother with Mike LaFleur operating a QB-friendly scheme for playmaking passer Zach Wilson. They surrounded Wilson with a great cast of pass-catchers as well. And don't sleep on running back Michael Carter emerging as a great value starter.

The defense has a few more question marks but is overall an intriguing unit. The staff would need to be an instant hit to get them into the top-10 range but Robert Saleh has done quality work in the past. 

Is it too crazy to think they could jump a regressing Dolphins or Bills team if either see a letdown season at quarterback? Probably, but the Jets at least have ingredients to start building like the Browns did after the 2018 draft. 

4. Denver Broncos

The Denver Broncos would be at least second on this list if they can pull off a trade for Aaron Rodgers, but things with the Packers and Rodgers are currently at a standstill. Denver is stuck in a loaded division with the worst quarterback situation of the group. 

Teddy Bridgewater will be a big upgrade on the 2020 version of Drew Lock, and this roster is actually one of the best in the league. They'll be highly competitive and have a chance to ascend if they can win close games.

The uncertainty at quarterback is limiting, though. And the Chiefs and Chargers have similarly talented rosters around much more talented passers. The Broncos can't jump both barring an injury or trade for Rodgers. 

3. Jacksonville Jaguars

Urban Meyer's Jaguars might not be the most talented team on this list but they're in a better position to make a leap than most. The AFC South is often a trainwreck and it's possible the pile-up leads to mediocrity throughout the division.

Both Tennessee and Indianapolis have deep flaws. The Titans' defense might be topped out as average, and the Colts' offense might completely flop with Carson Wentz. If those both happen, the Jaguars have room to jump into the mix and compete to win.

Admittedly, the roster's depth is an issue. Trevor Lawrence has a solid offense around him but a major injury can change the look of the unit completely.

The defense is also rebuilding on the fly. The starters are solid, though, and shouldn't be discounted. 

Jacksonville's future is so bright that the fans should still be happy with a leap from 1-15 to average. The bigger leaps will come in the next few years. 

2. Philadelphia Eagles

Situation matters for the race from last to first. And there isn't a better division to see that jump than the NFC East. 

The Cowboys have secondary issues and a strange defense overall. Washington is relying on a Ron Rivera offense being led by Ryan Fitzpatrick. And the Giants have Daniel Jones and Joe Judge.

Philadelphia has their own slew of question marks, sure, but there's an argument this defense will bounce back since they're so talented on all three levels. And if Nick Sirianni can develop Jalen Hurts, they'll absolutely compete.

Hurts has some decent young playmakers around him with DeVonta Smith and Miles Sanders. He must balance using his legs and improving his pre-snap reads. His overall accuracy has to get better, too, but Hurts is a relentless worker and extremely smart.

Winning at least four more games than 2020 is a realistic jump for the Eagles. They've been underachieving for years and this new staff must realize how much room for growth there is.

Can they get hot and reach 10 wins? 

1. San Francisco 49ers

It's possible the 49ers may have only drafted one Day 1 starter from their 2021 class but the upside is tremendous when we project beyond the opening lineup. The 49ers have a strong roster that'll be molded by a great coaching staff over the course of the season. 

The main question is clearly at quarterback. Jimmy Garoppolo may not last the entire season, but he's good enough to get this team a divisional banner if he stays on the field. The defense must prove healthy and opportunistic enough, though.

Hopefully, the roster doesn't seemingly catch the injury bug like they did in 2020. They're capable of leaping both Seattle and the Rams to win the division and challenge for a conference crown — especially if Trey Lance is ready to change how the Niners' offense operates. 

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